The annual circus was an institution at Belle Vue, and what an extraordinary circus it was!
Not for Belle Vue a Billy Smart's, Chipperfield's, Gerry Cottle's or one of the many other travelling circuses. Belle Vue provided the Rolls Royce of the circus world and had enhanced the Christmas entertainment choice in Manchester for countless thousands of adults and children for decades.
Each year the management put together a veritable feast of top flight acts from around Europe and even further afield which, in very short order, was welded into a cohesive performance featuring human and animal acts ranging from comedy to high drama, from incredible skills of co-ordination and not a little courage, to showmanship unequalled under any "big top".
And even the "big top" Belle Vue offered was different. Not a tent, but the Kings Hall with 5000 seats in a circle around a traditional circus ring, an orchestra balcony, height enough for trapeze (but not a full high wire) and the front row right on the edge of the ring, close enough to allow both audience participation and the thrill of being separated from wild animals only by what often was mistaken for flimsy caging.
THF Leisure saw the circus as a major profit earner and though money was by no means limitless, they encouraged the contracting of major acts, many of which were household names. In the years in question, acts were drawn from, amongst others, Italy, Hungary, Germany, France and the UK and the large animal acts were provided by branches of the Chipperfield family.
From the late Spring of each year Jack Fearnley, one time General Manager, now Speedway Supremo, would leave the smell of castor oil and leathers behind and vanish for days at a time to destinations far and wide, viewing acts, meeting agents and negotiating contracts.
By mid summer the programme was normally complete and the sales brochures would be in print, poster sites around the North of England booked for the season and advert space in newspapers reserved.
Whilst the vast majority of the public would see the newspaper and poster ads, the volume business was attracted by the sales brochures distributed and backed up by the Sales Force. To fill 5000 seats per performance was a very tall order so the traditional way of gaining a well filled hall and making a profit was group business.
These groups were mainly children's parties from companies, working men's clubs, Scout and Guide packs, children's institutions and not a few circus enthusiast organisations.
From early December space was cleared around the side and rear of Kings Hall and on the Brewery car park as caravans and trailers, many with exotic registration plates, arrived, hooked up to electricity and water, raised TV aerials and made their home that part of Manchester twixt Longsight and Gorton for Christmas and the following six weeks.
The large animals would be housed in their trailers behind Kings Hall (in the case of the big cats and elephants, as close to the rear entrance as possible) and it would be appropriate to mention that there was a commonly held misconception that the zoo provided some of the animals for the performances. This is totally untrue as performing animals need training, a constant interface with their trainer and a degree of domestication. It is also untrue that the circus animals were housed alongside their less well trained cousins in the zoo.
From the end of the first week of December, Kings Hall would see rehearsals on a daily basis with final dress rehearsals in the week before Christmas. Belle Vue staff would get used to the performers and their families wandering around the grounds, asking for directions and help with finding shops and other facilities and many new friendships were formed and old ones revitalised, when performers made return visits.
The last dress rehearsal of all was on Christmas Eve (unless this was a Sunday when the day before was substituted as performances in costume were not allowed by law on a Sunday).
The Manchester Evening News traditionally booked the whole house for the performance and sold a large percentage of the tickets to the public for the Lord Mayor of Manchester's Charities. The remaining seats they distributed to children's homes, needy families and other groups and this was the one house, which could be guaranteed full.
The performance served as a final shakedown for the artistes, orchestra, hall staff and the sales force which, traditionally, met booked coach parties and assisted in parking the buses and coaches and escorting groups to Kings Hall where the staff would take each group to their seats.
The whole complex was "dark" on Christmas Day but Boxing Day and the days up to January 6th, normally saw two or three performances and then every Monday to Thursday saw two performances per day, with three on a Friday, for another week, followed by one performance a day until the end of the season, with the odd midweek day having a matinee. Each Saturday saw three performances throughout the season.
In an average year, Kings Hall would see between 75 and 90 bookable performances and this had, for some years, caused problems of which more later.
Each performance saw a bringing together of performers and Belle Vue staff (yes the zoo staff would help with the animals and caging when agreed with the individual artistes) in a way which, with rare exceptions, looked seamless. Staff, including management, was induced to take part in novelty acts and the handling of the party group vehicles on Saturdays was equalled only by the traffic through major coach stations like Birmingham, London Victoria and Cheltenham.
On the last night, after the final clown had put away his baggy trousers, the last lion had prowled around the ring and the acrobats had tumbled one last time, the Hall staff would hold a party and, on the Saturday following, the management and performers attended a banquet, often with a range of fare representative of the countries from which the performers had been drawn.
By early March all had gone and the only reminder would be the odd poster still in situ, the surplus booking forms lying around the Sales Office (it seemed impossible to order the "correct" amount of any Belle Vue booking form) and the odd animal odour trapped in Kings Hall.
Then came the reckoning of income, costs and profit and, each year, the picture became more depressing.
- Competition to Belle Vue Circus -
As with much else at the complex, time had moved on outside the gates but had stood still inside and in that corridor of communication to Jermyn St Head Office. The impact of television from the 1950s had been slow to hit the Belle Vue Circus but, whilst slow was sure. This impact was both direct and indirect. Circus is a specialist art and whilst television had often featured circus, particularly Billy Smart's, the stars of circus remained fixed in the circus constellation and never became television stars.
The major competition to Belle Vue Circus was the pantomime, which meant those put on by the Palace Theatre, the Opera House, the Ashton Empire, The Davenport at Stockport, Oldham Coliseum and at just about every theatre and church hall in a 70 mile radius.
They were, in a large or small way, competing for the same Christmas entertainment pound and the major theatres had the opportunity to cast headlining television stars in leading roles. It mattered not that some of these were not totally at ease in front of live audiences. They could transfer to the stage and their names would sell seats. They could move from the constellation that was television to that called pantomime and often transferred the very acts, songs, jokes etc., for which were known, loved and in demand. Circus could not compete on that basis.
Television had also increased the sophistication of children from whom clowns could still raise a giggle and lions, in close proximity, would still send a shiver of fear down the spine but that sophistication raised an awareness that animals could be both hurt and degraded in a circus environment. Coupled with the earlier maturity of most early teens, the big star pantomime and a desire for other forms of entertainment steadily eroded the circus business. Whilst adults might still book groups of children to Kings Hall, the take up of the 11 plus age group in those parties rapidly declined through the early and mid 1970s.
There was also an equation, created by the unique nature of the Belle Vue Circus, which became harder to balance each year. The acts that Jack Fearnley brought together were often the cream of their particular discipline. They demanded, and could get, work as they wanted and the normal contract they wanted from Belle Vue was three months, i.e. December, January and February. This included travel time by road from wherever in Europe they came, a core of an 8-9 weeks rehearsal and performance period followed by time to travel back from whence they came. The acts were not cheap.
Neither was running Kings Hall, which, even with only a handful of paying customers, had to be staffed to the minimum required for safety, needed the full orchestra and had to be heated and lit.
The sheer size of Kings Hall caused problems. With 75 performances, at a minimum, there were at least 375,000 seats to sell throughout the season. The first two weeks and most Saturday performances attracted audiences of between 70% and 85% but, by mid January when the schools were back in session and Christmas was a fast fading memory, the weekday performances were often very empty, grim and lacking in atmosphere - which must have been very dispiriting for the performers and did nothing to attract either word of mouth promotion or rebooking the following year from the customers.
Common sense should have dictated that the season be started a week prior to Christmas with the final show no later than the second or third Saturday of January. This would not have changed the demands of the performers' contracts, but would have reduced operating costs, filled more performances and given the acts something to perform to. But common sense isn't that common and all suggestions to follow pantomime's lead in reducing the season were rejected from on high. Each year, the targets came down from Jermyn St based on the number of seats available, adjusted by a formula known only to the target setter and were guaranteed not to be met, by virtue of their excessive optimism and sheer blindness to the world in which the Belle Vue Circus was operating.
What many people thought might have been a death blow to the annual event came with the retirement of that Grand Old Man of the Ring, George Lockhart who, as Ringmaster, was so much part of the Manchester Christmas. When George put away his whip and top hat it was said no-one could step into his shoes but Norman Barrett (see right), otherwise the Blackpool Tower Circus Ringmaster and accomplished budgerigar trainer, had made the top hat, red coat and ring his own and was very much master of the art. By 1976 he was firmly in control.
Norman came across as very much the Boss and the ring crews and the acts responded well to his every command. What was not seen from the public side of the ring was that the response was based on respect for his deep knowledge of every aspect of circus and his ability to do every job the crew had to do (he often pitched in when there was a delay or problem) as well as being able to handle a number of animals.
Each year there was a novelty animal act included in the programme. In the 1976-1978 period they were an Elephant Barber, a Boxing Kangaroo and a Bucking Bronco. Volunteers were called for from the audience and, from time to time a genuine member of the public would pluck up courage and participate. Often these were party organisers who had volunteered at the time they booked and were well briefed as to what was involved.
More often than not, however, the well dressed man in the third row, urged by his wife to take part, was a member of the management team, urged on by his secretary and both planted to ensure not only continuity, but to save the individual act and the circus management from a law suit should anything go wrong.
The Elephant Barber was not really a problem. A clown lathered up the victim and an elephant, with a large wooden razor held in its trunk, removed the very copious amounts of foam from the participant's face. Apart from the odd nose hit, none too gently, by the razor, there seemed to be no problem and the act seemed to be just a mildly amusing fill in. The sting was in the tail (or in this case the trunk).
The razor would not remove all the lather and, in any case, every good shave ends with a rinse. The rinse in this case was gallons of tepid water, delivered with the force of a fire hose from the elephant's proboscis. Apart from the shock, the torrent of water not only left the victim winded but the lingering aroma of elephant breath stayed around the mouth and nose for some days.
Of course, the audience responded with gales of laughter and never seemed to notice that the man and his "wife" were missing from the rest of the show. None of the team minded being shaved too much, but the other two acts were a different matter.
The Bronco was a rather mean mule and to stay on board for 10 seconds was a feat. Therefore more than one "volunteer" per show was needed. Management, having seen the mule in action, quickly found reasons not to be around during the act, or to be hosting VIPs with whom they had to stay and a small cohort of junior managers and zoo workers formed an elite team who eventually became quite expert. They also ran a very profitable book on who could stay on the longest.
The Boxing Kangaroo was even worse. Egged on by his clown minder and wearing real boxing gloves, the marsupial, standing slightly taller than the average man, lashed out at whirlwind speed and defended itself from any counter attack by following the rules of the King of Thailand rather than those of the Marquis of Queensbury, kicking at and jumping on its aggressor.
After a couple of managers had reported back from rehearsals, the elite cohort was again formed and bore the brunt of the attack.
Mention has already been made of the volume of bus and coach traffic bringing in parties from a wide area of Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire, Merseyside, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and, occasionally, further afield.
All PSVs (Passenger Service Vehicles) were admitted and left the grounds through the Longsight (Redgate Lane) entrance. Longsight Drive would not accommodate two 8 feet plus wide vehicles wishing to pass each other and a one way system was in operation, via the Banqueting Suites car park, at the change over between the Saturday performances.
All off loading and parking was done on the large space between Kings Hall and the Elizabethan Ballroom and, without aid of parking lines or turning circle indicators, the grounds staff and management became expert at marshalling vehicles of various lengths in such a way so that parties could be off loaded safely, vehicles could be extricated from the melee with the minimum of fuss, should the need arise, and be able to be seen by the returning groups which, though the best efforts of the staff ensured most returned in the crocodile in which they were delivered to Kings Hall, sometimes had the odd missing member.
Problems could arise with groups on Manchester Corporation double deckers when almost identical vehicles had delivered parties from widely differing parts of the city and the odd latecomer, fresh from a toilet trip whilst exiting the hall, tried to board a vehicle for Wythenshawe whilst his or her home was in Moston. Most problems were sorted by a simple head count and checking of like liveried vehicles but there was one memorable occasion when a young boy managed to board the wrong coach and nearly ended up in Leeds when he should have been in Staffordshire.
He had left the Kings Hall after visiting the toilet, immediately prior to the end of the show, after hearing the Ringmaster wish everyone a safe journey and decided he would be first on the coach. Boarding a coach that looked similar to that on which he had arrived, the driver had let him on without question, whereupon he took himself off to the back of the coach and promptly fell asleep. The party for Leeds joined the coach; the leaders did a slipshod headcount and were sent on their way.
Meanwhile, the Staffordshire party, one short, waited in the hall for the recalcitrant to rejoin. With the hall being swept and the staff mindful of the need to clear all bodies prior to the imminent influx for the teatime show, a search was instigated. The little lad now being twenty minutes adrift, a winter's night descending and mist being in the air, Security was alerted and the bus marshals were asked to confirm all party leaders had reported correct numbers on departure.
This being ascertained a search of the grounds was started, 40 something children and a set of worried leaders were taken for some sustenance and warmth and the police were contacted. The Sales Office was opened and phone numbers for all party leaders were obtained and messages left for everyone detailing what to do should they have found a cuckoo in their particular nest.
With another 3,000 or so about to arrive for the next performance, the problem was by no means insignificant as a great deal of manpower required to service the next intake was diverted to dealing with a serious emergency, given the myriad buildings and structures, wild animals and access to the outside world open to the child. It was impossible for the gate minders to say if a stray child had passed out onto Hyde Rd or Redgate Lane or not, as he could have easily attached himself to another group.
After about 30 minutes of frenzied activity order was restored when a phone message was received from Oldham. A very apologetic party leader had found the stray who realised he was on the wrong bus when he couldn't understand the boy next to him!!! Not finding anyone he recognised (and it must be remembered that many of the children on works' or other social club organised events only saw each other a couple of times a year) he went to the front of the bus and asked if they would be back in Burslem in time to watch The Generation Game!
The bus had to turn back to Belle Vue, both parties were seriously inconvenienced and delayed and, in the end, over 70 people were involved in the emergency (apart from the coach parties themselves). If only mobile phones had been around!
Some parties, particularly near Christmas, booked a Christmas "treat" and they would be led from Kings Hall to the Banqueting Suites to indulge in a variety of fare surrounded by streamers and balloons, often receiving presents from Santa. How much of the consumed comestibles stayed where they were meant to is a matter of conjecture as, whilst there were always a healthy number of treats booked, there were few rebookings, year on year!!
With the audience figures never meeting the Board's expectation, various ideas were put in place to increase the exposure of the Circus to individual bookers as well as parties. Circus advertising will be covered in the piece on Selling Belle Vue's Attractions but one opportunity that was taken in 1977 was linked to the Lord Mayor's Charities and the Christmas Eve show.
For some time, Phil Blinkhorn had been touting the idea of a circus parade. A number of problems needed to be overcome to instigate the plan, not least of which was the remoteness of Belle Vue from a major residential or shopping centre. Having secured the agreement of other members of the management team, Phil talked to Jack Fearnley about likely participants and it became clear that Dickie Chipperfield's elephants could form the centrepiece of the parade.
As with all ideas of this nature, once conceived this one achieved a very vital life of its own. Phil decided that the best way to gain publicity for the 1977-1978 circus was to have a parade in the City Centre on the Saturday 8 days prior to Christmas. At the same time the thought occurred to him that the last dress rehearsal was the Lord Mayor's Charity performance and that the Manchester Evening News sponsored the event. A good reason for taking a parade around the City Centre would be to collect an invitation to the Lord Mayor from the Manchester Evening News Office and deliver it to the Lord Mayor on the Town Hall steps.
Discussions were started with the Manchester Evening News and an enthusiastic reception to the idea was received from Pam Garside who was in charge of the Christmas Eve performance arrangements. Together she and Phil approached the Lord Mayor's Office and received a very prompt acceptance of the idea from Robert Crawford, the then Lord Mayor, a wonderfully enthusiastic a truly approachable man who tragically died within a short period of leaving office in 1978.
At this point, the first snag occurred when it became clear that the Lord Mayor's diary would not accommodate the parade on the Saturday. This was a major blow as it had been hoped to hit a massive audience of pre Christmas shoppers on the busiest shopping day of the season. Some thought was given to holding the parade on the Saturday, which was Christmas Eve, but Jack Fearnley thought there could be problems, given the performance was that evening (and he made it clear that they would have been problems with the human stars, not the animals).
Further discussions revolved around the Lord Mayor's diary, the arrival date of the various acts, the rehearsal schedule and the length of notice needed to ensure Police approval.
Phil and Pam decided it was not worth telling the Police until the Lord Mayor had agreed a date, on the basis that the less time they were given, the less time they would have to dream up a plausible reason for saying no, which was a distinct possibility.
Eventually it was agreed that the best time available would be a lunch time when the office workers would be on the streets and Robert Crawford suggested the Monday prior to Christmas.
Armed with his acceptance, the Manchester Evening News' involvement and the agreement of Dickie Chipperfield to the use of his elephants which would be one of the major acts in the show, the Police were approached. The Chief Inspector in charge of traffic was extremely sceptical at first, not of the idea but of the initial phone call and he had to be persuaded to phone Phil back at Belle Vue before he would even discuss the matter!
He then ran through an immense list of objections but most were overcome by Dickie Chipperfield. It was made clear that the elephants in question had all had experience of parading in front of crowds, on streets and in traffic and Dickie went so far as to provide a list of towns where the police could be contacted. Belle Vue and Dickie would take out any extra insurance needed and the elephants would be transported to and from the Evening News offices by Dickie's transporters.
After a few days and no doubt a great deal of discussion at St Joseph's, permission was granted for a parade to form up not before 10.30 am on Monday 19 December 1977 and to be completed by no later than 2.30 pm, taking no more than 100 minutes to cover a route along Deansgate, Peter St, Albert Sq, Cross St, Market St and Deansgate again.
Having measured the route, allowed for 20 minutes at the Town Hall and consulted Dickie, it was agreed that the parade would leave the Evening News at 11.50, returning thence at 1.30, thus fitting into the Lord Mayor's schedule, ensuring photo coverage in all but the first editions of the Evening News (they would carry an advance report), hit the bulk of the lunch time shoppers and diners and cover all the time allowed, plus allowing a late afternoon rehearsal back at Belle Vue for those Jack needed.
As Christmas drew closer more acts agreed to join in so that by the end of the week before the parade there were clowns, acrobats, jugglers and parts of the orchestra all signed up to take part.
A number of the female staff had been persuaded to ride some of the elephants and, after some at first nervous practices in the ring at Kings Hall, the girls were confident that the elephants knew what to do and they were able to ride in splendour, kitted out in costumes that Phil Blinkhorn had persuaded his wife to "run up".
A large invitation card was painted up in the grounds workshop, requesting the pleasure of the company of the Lord Mayor at the Christmas Eve performance.
Friday December 16 had been a long day for Phil and he was just about to leave for home around 6 pm when it became very much longer. Deciding to answer the phone as he left the office, he was greeted by Dickie Chipperfield phoning from his "winter quarters" in the South of England. Dickie had been around the complex on Thursday and no one had seen him leave in the elephant transporter. The gist of his message was that his other transporter had broken down and there were some elephants that had to be moved across the country that weekend and there was no way the transporter could be back in Manchester on Monday. He would be back by car and he was sure that "a substantial cattle truck" could do the job.
Quickly cancelling his dinner and warning his wife that he may be home late, Phil first of all telephoned the Police to make contact with the Chief inspector to see what the attitude would be to the elephants being walked from Belle Vue to Deansgate and back. He didn't have long to wait for the answer, it was a flat "NO".
He then contacted Pam Garside at home and she promised to phone some contacts. Then he raided the switchboard and got hold of the Yellow Pages for all the local phone areas.
Leaving Belle Vue at nearly midnight, he was committed all day Saturday on family business but, from 11 am Sunday, he was back at Belle Vue phoning every farmer he could find listed to try to beg, borrow or hire one or more "substantial cattle trucks".
Now farmers are very down to earth people and to receive a phone call on a Friday night, or over Sunday lunch, from an idiot claiming to be from Belle Vue, wanting to have six elephants driven into Deansgate, Manchester, is probably the closest they come to hearing a "wind up" outside the village pub. Most just laughed and put the phone down, some were abusive and, of those who did listen, most were committed to shipping animals to the last market before Christmas or were otherwise busy and were unwilling to have their vehicle driven by anyone else and resisting cash inducements, tickets to concerts, the circus and free publicity.
Someone suggested using the low loader Hawker Siddeley used to transport fuselages from Chadderton to Woodford, but the security people at Woodford and Chadderton refused to divulge executives phone numbers, again probably sensing a practical joke.
Then, during the early evening and about to give up and phone the Lord Mayor at home to cancel the whole event, Phil remembered that on e of his sales team, Jean Fleming, was a long time friend of a very senior policeman. Praying she would be home he called her and explained the problem.
She promised to try to persuade him into allowing the elephants to walk into the city, but ten minutes later phoned back to say that he was out for the evening but a message had been passed for him to phone her as soon as he returned.
At this point, Phil returned home, the 19 mile drive to Rossendale seeming a very long way. By the time he went to bed there was still no message from Jean but, at 6.30 am, the phone rang and Jean told him that her contact had spoken to her very late on Sunday and "would see what he could do".
By 7.45, Phil was at Belle Vue awaiting news and at 8.00 on the dot Phil received a call from a rather unhappy, but nonetheless very precise Chief Inspector who said he had been told to allow the elephants to walk into and out of Manchester and that a Police motorcyclist would pick them up at 8.30 and return for them at 1.30. What was done with them at the Evening News between their arrival and the parade commencing was Belle Vue's problem but any trouble would be firmly laid at the door of the management and, especially, the Sales Manager. One last point was the motorcyclist had better things to do, so the elephants had better be ready to go on time, or they wouldn't go at all.
A very apologetic Mr Chipperfield was already in the office and hurried away to get the elephants out of their shed behind Kings Hall. Pam Garside was then contacted just as she was leaving home and the day was ready to fall into place.
Now, throughout these articles, it will be seen that many of the problems at Belle Vue were caused by lack of vision by the Board in London and a determined unwillingness of some people to move with the times. Belle Vue was doing badly and the circus was in decline. There is a saying in soccer that if you are doing badly, the fates will make things worse-and so it was to prove with the parade.
With the elephants well on their way, the other artistes breakfasting and changing into costume and the elephant riders colleting theirs, the phone rang once again in the Sales office. This time it was Pam Garside to say an unofficial strike had been called at the Evening News and the lunchtime editions were definitely not going out. Later editions were dependent on talks about to commence. Phil decided not to tell anyone of the strike and a convoy of cars set out for Deansgate.
A couple of the performers
arrived in their much decorated vehicles, others, in
costume, were ready to walk and the invitation was to be
carried ahead of the parade by two of the clowns. The
Manchester Evening News Boards were carried by an
Evening News van surrounded by Evening News promotion
girls in their outfits and they and the Belle Vue Sales
Staff were equipped with leaflets to hand out. Ten
minutes before scheduled departure, a
The parade got under way on time, the band played, the girls rode the elephants and thousands of pedestrians, drivers and passengers in all sorts of vehicles must have had the surprise of their lives as the noisy, happy, procession wended its way to Albert Square.
Precisely to time, the steps of the Town Hall were reached and there, in full regalia, stood Robert Crawford with the Lady Mayoress and a bevy of officials. Two elephants had been trained to hold the invitation and many rolls of film were expended as the Lord Mayor accepted the oversize invitation and, to everyone's surprise, immediately RSVP'd with an equally large card of his own, which the elephants accepted.
The parade then returned to Hardman Street via Cross Street, the bottom of Market Street and Deansgate and, by this time the Manchester lunch hour was in full swing. There must have been many people who returned to their employment that afternoon and had a hard time convincing colleagues that they had seen 6 elephants walking the city streets. "Well it will be in the News tonight" must have been said many times as a rebuttal to any scoffers but, unless they were Daily Telegraph readers, they would have had an even harder time by next morning as the Manchester Evening News did not go to press that Monday.
After months of planning, effort and overcoming a last minute crisis, the only press coverage was a photo of six elephants walking down the "Tidal Flow" section of Upper Brook Street, outside the University Chemistry Building, taken by a Telegraph photographer on the way to his office. A scant mention was made of the reason for their presence aid the rush hour traffic and that was the end of a good idea.
If anyone knows the
whereabouts of any of the photos taken, the writer would
be grateful for either negatives to borrow for scanning
or scanned shots via email, through the webmaster
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